The Middle East has become a chaotic and bloody battlefield, where opposing forces wage no-holds-barred war on one another in a ruthless effort to gain power, to regain power, or to retain power. For years Iran’s nuclear ambitions, linked as they are to its undisguised aim of achieving political and religious dominance, have been fiercely opposed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region’s most powerful Sunni state. As a result, both countries are now engaged in a bitter struggle for supremacy throughout the Muslim world, often by proxy.
It is not easy to keep pace with the shifting kaleidoscope of alliances and alienations, or the reasons behind them, but if any one area is a microcosm of the whole, it is Yemen. Here, as across the region, Islam is at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution plays itself out.
Nowhere is the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere is it more blurred, as self-seeking interests cut across it.
Who is fighting whom in Yemen? There are four main principals: the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; the legal president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular); and IS (Islamic State). To these might be added Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs. Then, joining the fray is Saudi Arabia, which has intervened both militarily and diplomatically in the past few weeks to beat back the Houthis. Now latest reports indicate that Iran is becoming directly involved. On April 8, according to Iranian state television, a destroyer and a back-up vessel were sent to the Gulf of Aden, close to the ancient port city that is being torn apart by heavy fighting between Sunni forces and Shia Houthi rebels.
The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red. They read:
“God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”.
The Houthis have been supported for years with weapons and other military hardware by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. As a result they have overrun large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. Not only do the Houthis receive support from Iran, but they are also in alliance with Yemeni security forces still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who, although a Sunni Muslim, seems intent on maneuvering a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis. With Saleh’s help, they now control most of the Yemeni military, including its air force.
A second main player is President Hadi and the government he led from February 2012. Hadi had been deputy to President Saleh who, facing widespread protests and life-threatening attacks, finally – and very reluctantly – left office and transferred the powers of the presidency to him. Hadi took over a country in a state of chaos, and when the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, Hadi failed to broker a deal with them and resigned.
With the Houthis installed as the interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there, on March 26, to Saudi Arabia. He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restoring President Hadi to office.
A third major force in Yemen is the spin-off al-Qaeda group known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular). Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, it was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsular. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.
Finally among the principals in war-torn Yemen is the recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State (IS). Although IS is just as Sunni-adherent and just as fundamentalist as AQAP, it marches to a different drum-beat, and seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence. It therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the Sunni AQAP, the legitimate Sunni President Hadi, and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia.
Despite the Saudi bombing campaign, which is now in its third week, the Houthis have continued their advance into government territory. As a result, the United States recently increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign. On April 8 Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Washington was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized. There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. We trace those flights, and we know this.”
Speaking just days after the announcement of a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry said he was seeking to reassure allies, including Saudi Arabia, that the United States could “do two things at the same time” – something the principal players in the Yemen conflict have become adept at.
In Yemen the broad outlines of the Iran-Saudi Arabia struggle, reflecting their Sunni-Shia division, are evident, but in the confusion of the battle Sunni ex-President Saleh throws in his lot with the Iranian-supported Shia Houthis, AQAP seeks to overthrow the Sunni government, and IS is set on eclipsing AQAP and extending the reach of its parent organization into the Arabian peninsular.
In short, the situation in Yemen, reflecting that in the Middle East as a whole, is a prime example of realpolitik in action – self-interest taking precedence over principle. Poor Yemen.